Approach to Soloing

Discussion in 'Ask Todd Johnson [Archived]' started by Bassist4Life, Jan 15, 2006.

  1. Bassist4Life


    Dec 17, 2004
    Buffalo, NY

    What is your approach to soloing in a gig where your role is the bassist? I read that sometimes you take on other roles like guitarist and horn player.

    I am relatively new to improvisation. How would you explain soloing to a student working on a tune like Autumn Leaves?

    Do you work with key centers? Do you have students think mesure by measure? I've had the most success with key centers. I've seen Aebersold books where a scale is written in each measure for soloing. For me, that is too much information to process for real time soloing.

    What is your process? I've heard so many people say, "I just play." That can't be all there is to it. Maybe it is that way for a select group of musicians. When someone says that they "just play", I feel like they are hiding the real answer.

  2. Todd Johnson

    Todd Johnson

    Sep 27, 2005
    Anthem, AZ
    HI Joe,

    Great question(s)!

    First of all when I'm performing at this stage of my development.....I'm literally just playing and reacting....just playing what I hear...(well, hopefully) asked;) ....that's the honest answer.

    When I work with Jim Martinez, I'm literally functioning as the guitar player most of the time....(well, when he's hired an upright player...sometimes I'm hired as the bass player too) I play guitar voicings and do my best to compliment what Jim is playing on the piano....staying out of the register of the bass player etc. FUN other times, we trade fours back and fourth, so I function as the second soloist etc. You get the point.

    BUT, what I think you're asking.....(and what most people want to know is).....HOW DID I LEARN TO DO THIS???

    Asssuming that's what you really want to know, then here's a step by step method for getting a great start on learning how to improvise.

    1. Get a good recording of the song you're trying to learn. Too many people try to learn jazz/soloing from a book with their eyes. You wouldn't learn to speak Japanese out of a book, would you? NO!! You'd use the book, but you'd also hang out with Japanese speaking people, watch Japanese TV and DVD' get the point. Jazz/music is the same have to LISTEN to what you're tying to learn. So, get a "reasonable" version of the tune you're learning....Autumn Leaves for example; (Miles w/Cannonball is one of the great versions) I highly recommend itunes for this....anyway..... It's REALLY important to have something to listen to and imitate etc. CRITICAL STUFF......

    2. LEARN THE MELODY............ Most bass players try to learn how to solo and play melodically, yet they've NEVER played a melody in their life!!! How can we hope to sound melodic if we've never played a melody??

    As bass players.....we learn bass wonder our solos sound like "doubled up bass lines...up an octave". Sound familiar??? Make sense???

    So.. learn the melody. Practice playing along with along with Sinatra, Nat Cole's important to have an idea how the LYRICS go...that'll help you with your phrasing.

    3. NOW......practice playing the melody with EMBELLISHMENTS! Practice just using your ear to "dress up" the melody. You'll be amazed at what your ear will tell you. PLUS....the whole idea is to learn to PLAY WHAT YOU you need to start practicing that skill!!!! If you don't practice that skill,......then you won't get better at it.....

    I don't mean so sound like a "wise-guy", but VERY FEW bass players practice this way.

    4. NOW.....Use these simple improvising tips:

    Play the 3rd of every chord. (a half note will do for time... with a play-along etc.)

    Play the 5th of every chord.

    Play the 7th of every chord.

    Play the 3 & 5 of every chord.

    Play the 3 & 7 of every chord.

    Play the 12321 of every scale – play 32123 of every scale. (simple eight note patterns)

    Play the 34543 of every scale - play 54345 of every scale.

    Play the 56765 of every scale – play 76567 of every scale

    You'll notice that most of these DON'T START ON THE ROOT!! As bass players we're taught to ALWAYS play the letter name of the chord on the downbeat.....which is what we're supposed to do as bass players, OK? Good.

    BUT.....that training doesn't lend itself to good melodic playing. SO..........we need to develop the ability to look/hear a chord change and NOT PLAY THE ROOT.

    This was REALLY hard for me personally......but once I broke free, it opened everything up. It's hard to see a Bb7 chord and "not" play a Bb on the downbeat. Can I get an Amen? Ha!

    Another tip I would mention is to try NOT playing on the downbeat. Start on the "and" of one...or on beat 2.

    DISCLAIMER: Now realize all this information is "ONLY" for melodic playing.....not for bass playing. When you're playing bass, PLAY THE ROOT ON THE DOWNBEAT....sorry....just wanted to protect myself.....I don't wan't somebody to get fired from a gig and then saying, "Todd Johnson said not to play on the downbeat".....;) :D You get my point!!

    Also notice that I have you playing "fragments" of the scale instead of the whole scale.

    It's been my experience that when you teach bass players to play scales over changes, they play them from the root to the octave and back down. Then they wonder why their solos sound like scales??? DUH!! That's because that's what you just practiced!!


    I would recommend learning/transcribing all or part of a solo. Pick one that is "attractive" to your ears, yet is "playable".

    Too many guys start off trying to transcribe Coltrane or Michael Brecker and then get discouraged because they can't do it. DUH!! That's because it's WAY TOO HARD!! SO.....pick someone that's GREAT, but Miles Davis....or Wes Montgomery.....Stan Getz......Chet Baker etc. You get the point. Start there and work your way up.

    Realize that soloing is a LANGUAGE!!! You don't start off learning English by learning the "Gettysburg address" you? learn a language by saying....momma....daddy....counting to ten....where's the much is that?.....etc. You get the point. Then you work your way up to longer phrases with deeper content.

    I hope this makes sense.......

    You asked! :D ....but this is how I teach improvisation. It takes just a little longer than most methods, but with MUCH BETTER RESULTS!!! ........and that' the whole point.

    Well, there you go.....have fun and PLAY SLOW!! Take your time. It takes kids 10 years to learn to speak at a high level......learning to improvise is virtually the same process.

    Good luck!
  3. Wow, so much there to digest. :eek:

    Thanks, Todd, for that great primer on soloing. All of us who will practice this definitely have our work cut out for us!

    Are there plans for a DVD concentrating on melodic playing styles?
  4. Todd Johnson

    Todd Johnson

    Sep 27, 2005
    Anthem, AZ

    Yes, there is.

    First, I just finished my "Technique Builders" DVD. It'll be available Feb. 1st

    Over the next 12 - 18 months, I hope to have finished Volumes 2 & 3 of my "Walking Bass Line Modules System". Volume 1 is out and available at my website

    I'm planning on doing a "Fingerboard Harmony" series....where I'll teach people how to learn and organize the fingerboard. That'll be 2 DVD's for sure.

    Also planning to teach some basic reading skills on DVD. It's really needed. That'll probably be 3 or 4 DVD's worth.

    Soloing or improvisation would be the other subject I'll need to cover. This one's so vast and open.....It'll take a least 2 DVD's to get that one started.

    So.... in order to address the "critical" subjects that all bass players need to get together I'm planning to have DVD's in:

    *Technique - get your sound together
    * Walking bass lines - learn to create great lines
    * Fingerboard Harmony - Learn all the information and where it's located.
    * Reading - Makes you "legitimate" and infinitely more employable.
    * Melodic playing/Soloing/Improvisation - This helps round you into the "complete musician".

    I'll be sure to keep you posted as I continue to release these products.

    Looks like I have a bunch of work to do in the next year and a half! :D Ha! (wow.....that's an understatement!!!) But,... that's the plan. I'm just not positive "what order" I'll be releasing them in.

    I hope that answers your question.
  5. SmittyG


    Dec 24, 2003
    Texarkana, Texas
    I've been bouncing around on talkbass for a while but just recently started scanning past the regular gear oriented forums. I stumbled into your forum and, right off the bat, read this thread which basically hands me my practice routine for the next five years. Thanks! I'm afraid I'm not familiar with your work, but I'm checking out your website and going to correct this void in my knowledge as soon as possible. Thanks again for taking the time to share your time and talent with your bass brethren. Your efforts are very appreciated.
  6. Pruitt


    Jun 30, 2005
    Danbury, CT
    Very interesting stuff, Todd. Thanks for sharing. I'm actually studying walking bass with my private instructor, Dave Overthrow. I just purchased your dvd to help supplement what I'm already learning. It looks like some worthwhile stuff!

    I'll be sure to check out the Techniques dvd when that's available also.

    Thanks for taking the time to answer questions here at TB!
  7. Todd Johnson

    Todd Johnson

    Sep 27, 2005
    Anthem, AZ
    Hi Smitty,

    That'll teach you to venture out of the gear forums! Ha!:D

    I'm happy to share what I know with everyone......besides, I can't keep something that's not mine..... God has blessed me with GREAT teachers, performance opportunities and insights. Besides, there's lot's of ways to get to this stuff (improvising),.....all I can do is share what worked for me.

    Have fun and play slow.

    Don't hesitate to ask questions. I'm happy to help.
  8. jeff schmidt

    jeff schmidt no longer red carded, but my butt is still sore.

    Aug 27, 2004
    Novato, CA
    seriously great answers there Todd. Very informative and deep.

    Thanks so much!
  9. Wrong Robot

    Wrong Robot Guest

    Apr 8, 2002
    Agreed. Lots of good advice from Todd here. I think it's funny how, so much can be said off of such a seemingly simple concept. "use your ears and play what you hear", yet, you can still talk about it for days! :)
  10. west*coast*bass

    west*coast*bass Supporting Member

    Dec 6, 2003
    Agoura Hills, CA
    Wow, I have not gotten this much info since I studied with this cat, Todd Johnson. Oh wait...never mind.

    Seriously, great stuff. It's funny when I read your posts, I still can remember you speaking your mantra..."play slow".

    On a side note, I sent a PM.
  11. Todd Johnson

    Todd Johnson

    Sep 27, 2005
    Anthem, AZ
    Hi Pruitt,

    Hey, thanks for purchasing the DVD....I'm hopeful that it'll benefit you greatly.:hyper:

    I also appreciate your support and encouragement.

    Be sure and let me know if I can be of service!
  12. Todd Johnson

    Todd Johnson

    Sep 27, 2005
    Anthem, AZ


    That's how I approach it.....hey, he asked! :D ;)

    I hadn't planned on such a dissertation, but once I started, I couldn't exercise really feeds the next. It's a logical progression anyway.......

    Looking forward to hooking up with you one of these days.

    Keep up your GREAT work!:bassist:
  13. Todd Johnson

    Todd Johnson

    Sep 27, 2005
    Anthem, AZ
    Hi Wrong Robot,

    Cool..........but the REAL secret is not to talk about it.....

    The real secret is to put in a consistent amount of time everyday working on this stuff.

    Talking about it is fine and dandy.......but PRACTICING is where it's at.

    Sorry, couldn't's just the teacher in me! ;) :D

  14. Bassist4Life


    Dec 17, 2004
    Buffalo, NY

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response to my question! I was in awe. I enjoyed your honest and straight-forward way of delivering your message.

    I totally agree with jazz being like a language. Suzuki also compared playing music to speaking a language. I've been teaching string orchestra in a public school for 7 years. I find that many educators have a tough time teaching their students how to improvise. You can always find a seminar on this topic at music education conferences. This is something that I have dabbled in; however, I feel that I need to develop better improvisation skills first. In college I studied "classical" double bass. Over the past few years I have really fallen in love with the electric bass. Throughout college I learned most of my music right from the page on my music stand.

    I have always been amazed at the ability of jazz musicians to improvise. I see it as freedom from the notes on the page. I would sit in the music lounge and see the jazzers begin to jam on chord changes without music while I sat and analyzed/studied my scores for instrumental conducting class. I secretly wanted to join in the jam session, but I knew that I wouldn't be able to keep up.

    Now, I find myself learning around 15 standards in a jazz combo. I am doing my best to create interesting walking lines; however, I find myself arpeggiating a lot. Every so often I come up with a smooth and sweet way to connect the changes. I can sit down and write some decent walking lines; however, coming up with them on the spot is a whole different story. When it's my time to solo, I tend to draw a blank and try to make it happen with some kind of sequential scale pattern. That doesn't seem to work for me.

    Prior to reading your response, I was working on playing through changes doing R235, R765 patterns. I did this slowly at This went well; however, it didn't sound all that interesting. I guess I gotta start somewhere, right? I appreciated the scale fragments that you suggested. I will start working on those this weekend.

    I am going to find a tune to transcribe as you have suggested. I know how beneficial this can be. I remember reading an interview a while back where you said that you transcribed the CD "Smokin' at the Half Note" (Montgomery). That inspired me to go out and buy that CD. Great stuff.

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge with us. I'm looking forward to improving my improv.

  15. Todd Johnson

    Todd Johnson

    Sep 27, 2005
    Anthem, AZ
    Hi Joe,

    Wow, thank you for YOUR thoughtful and detailed response. Well done......Now I'm in awe!

    First of all.........sounds like you're really on the right track. Listen, transcribe, apply it etc. .....way to go!!

    Here's my advice on the walking bass thing. (Watch out! Ha!:help: )

    There are 3 basic components that make up walking bass lines (actually....Music for that matter)
    1. Argeggios
    2. Scales
    3. Chromaticism

    I feel it's critical to get in CONTROL of each one of these components as they apply to walking bass lines and learn to maximize them to some degree. (actually a large degree :cool: )

    What I notice A LOT of bass players doing (and it sounds like you're on the verge of doing...) is they learn 2 or 3 "arpeggio" licks.....2 or 3 "scale ideas" and then aren't "really" sure what to do with the chromatic concept. THEN.......they get bored with their limited vocabulary and start trying to re-invent the triad!! HA!;) Does this sound familiar to anyone??:eek:

    So, what I've done to address this scenario is contained in my "Walking Bass Line Module Sysytem" DVD's.

    Right now, Volume 1 "Triad Modules" is finished and available.
    (Volumes 2 and 3 "should" be available in late spring or early summer!)

    Here's what Volume 1 deals with:

    1. Strong beat/weak beat theory - now you'll know exactly "why" certain notes work or belong on certain beats. You'll be able to play simple things with GREAT CONFIDENCE. This is a deal breaker by the way. I think we can all agreee that our playing is INFINITELY better when we can play with confindence. Can I get an AMEN! :)

    2, I teach you how to get the most out of major and minor triads......AND.....the chromatic approaches from above and below. I teach you how to play and connect "modules". Basically, a module is a 1 measure (or sometimes 2 beat) musical idea that we'll "plug in" to every measure of a "jazz blues in F" .....through repetition we'll learn to get in control of this "module".... The thinking behind this is: "if you can get in control of and play a 1 measure idea over every measure of a song, then you should be "in control" of that idea and be able to insert it at will later on. Now all we have to do is get in control of a handful of "modules" and combine them and we'll be up and, uh WALIKING! :D

    Also realize that I have you play each "module" through/over every bar in an F blues for about 5 or 10 choruses. Here's where you turn it into "muscle memory". THIS IS SUPER CRITICAL!!!! If you turn it into "muscle memory", then you can call it up at will. This is the secret to learning how to play "on the fly", or make it up as you go along. You just have to repeat the process until you don't have to think about it anymore. PLUS, this is a lot easier to do with just ONE idea, rather than attempting to put several things together at one time like most other methods have you do.

    Also realize that writing out your bass lines is VERY important. At first, we can intellectualize the process quickly and easily...but we have trouble creating on the fly. THE SECRET is to make sure you practice both skills. MAKE SURE YOU PRACTICE CREATING ON THE FLY, OR YOU'LL NEVER GET GOOD AT IT. It sounds simple, but it has to be done. After a while your ability to write out bass lines versus your ability to create bass lines on the fly will begin to become one skill. Pretty soon you'll be able to do both at an extremely high level. BUT, you have to practice both skills!!
    At this point we're successful learners!!:hyper:

    Now all we have to do is repeat the same process over and over again until we've digested the material presented.

    I teach you to get in control of 27 different modules in the DVD over a "jazz blues in F" and the first 8 bars of "Autumn Leaves", which just happens to be major and minor ii-v-i.

    Do you think this would help you expand your walking bass vocabulary?? Of course it would!!!

    Plus, this is all presented in an organized way with a solid, logical practice plan!! This helps greatly, because most guys sit down to practice and wind up just "jamming" or playing that "little old blues lick you've known forever". Sound familiar anyone??:meh:

    It's REALLY important to have something to aim for in your practice plan/schedule. I call this the AIM METHOD....... It's this....... READY, AIM (as in have a plan on what your going to learn) FIRE!!!

    Most folks get that backwards and go.....READY, FIRE, AIM (which means they sit down to practice and hope something will come to them.....sound familiar??:meh: )

    You're a million times more likely to "HIT" something if you're aiming at it. Also, remeber that "IF YOU AIM AT NOTHING, THEN THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT YOU'LL HIT!!!"

    Joe, forgive me for sounding like an infomercial,..... but I sense your enthusiasm, energy and desire and would hate to see you bounce around and not focus your energies into something specific.

    It's far better to focus on 1 or 2 specific things.....improve them.....and then work on 2 more things etc., etc., etc. This is much better than trying to learn 17 things at once and then getting discouraged because you're not making meaningful progress.

    Well, I've gone on long enough. I hope this is helpful.

    Keep up the good work,......let me know how I can continue to assist and support you!

    Warm regards,
  16. Pruitt


    Jun 30, 2005
    Danbury, CT
    Wow, now I'm looking forward to the Walking dvd showing up at my door even more! Heh heh... :hyper:
  17. Todd Johnson

    Todd Johnson

    Sep 27, 2005
    Anthem, AZ sure and let me know when it get's there safe and sound!!

    Thanks again for your support!:D
  18. Pruitt


    Jun 30, 2005
    Danbury, CT
    Will do! ;)

  19. Bassist4Life


    Dec 17, 2004
    Buffalo, NY

    Some things are starting to click as I work through exercises that I created using your scale fragments. Do you visualize the root location? If not, did you ever? I find that this helps me locate the pitches I need quickly and easily. I can visualize where the pitches are above the root (on the same string) and across the strings.

    I mess up frequently; however, I think that I will become comfortable soon (if I practice slowly) ;) .

    What direction should I aim myself at this point? Should I continue to work becoming comfortable with these pitch patterns?